What I Wish I Had Known as a Beginner at Meditation
The Reluctant Meditator
I have to be honest, when I was beginning meditation I never really got it. I gave it a try because my Tai Chi instructor got into it, and started adding it into our practice. At the time I was already practicing Tai Chi two hours a day, and frankly, I just got antsy sitting down, so I would always put it off. I figured I was just a mover, not a sitter. I stuck it out for a while, though, and even found myself at a week-long Thich Nhat Hanh retreat (where I would sneak off to do Tai Chi, and where I definitely found being silent much more appealing than being sitting.) But eventually I just let meditation go. I don’t remember ever deciding to. It just happened. I started a training in the Feldenkrais Method (which is a beautiful blend of movement and awareness), moved away from that Tai Chi instructor, and never really looked back.
But just as I have carried the burden of years of terribly unsuccessful French classes with me ever since, there is something about that initial experience of trying and failing to make meditation work that seems to have plagued me…
What is it About Beginning Meditation?
I mean, I was no stranger to practice, or paying attention, or the value of simple things. What is it that bounced me out? Instead of blaming myself or meditation, could I put my finger on something that got in the way? I feel that now, all of these years later, I am in a much better position to understand what happened, and to find a better way in. But first, some thoughts on the problem…
I think it’s safe to say that many people turn to meditation out of a sense that things could be easier, nicer, more relaxed, or however you would choose to put it. Meditation speaks to the part of ourselves wearied by our endeavors to achieve more by doing more. In a frantic, fragmented world, there is immense value in just sitting, breathing, attending.
And so we sit. And what we discover is the paradox: It’s not so easy. Of course our thoughts race and repeat themselves, chasing down any number of rabbit holes. But I’m talking about just sitting still for ten minutes, for thirty minutes. It’s the strangest thing. We sit all day; ours schools are apprenticeships in sitting. We sit to eat, to watch TV, to work, to catch up on Facebook. And yet, when we sit to sit, within minutes we realize we are not so good at it.
Sitting can be a real effort, and we may not even realizing how much until we start feeling daggers between the shoulder blades, or pins and needles in our feet, pain in the knees, or in our neck. Or maybe we manage to avoid all of these, and yet, going to stand up, our legs don’t come with us. The very thing we turned to to find more ease, more connection, leaves us struggling, aware of our parts, unsteady…
This was what, without realizing it at the time, eventually discouraged me enough to give up and pursue other paths. (Before finding them coming full circle!) As good as I was getting at moving, sitting still, quite frankly, kicked my butt. And trying my best to stick with it only pushed me further into the difficulty. Not finding a solution, I just wandered off.
Not, mind you, without trying a few things. Like sitting better, straighter, taller. I would imagine my head suspended from a string. (Nota Bene: this is a common recommendation, but it’s problematic. There is no string! More on this another time…) I got a nice zafu and zabutton and invested them with hope. I enforced a ritual (and some wiggle room): I would commit to thirty minutes, but whenever I wanted (almost always squeeked in as the last task of the day.) I tried to bring my awareness to areas that hurt, breathing into them, or conversely, bringing my attention to my breath, hoping the pain would take the cue. I would squirm and scratch itches. I would get serious and tell myself to push through. I would regret not having started at a young age. I would dream of a future where I had broken through to the other side. I would watch the clock…
Some days were better than others. And I’m sure that most of the time I just took all of this for granted, no matter how painfully acute it was. I don’t know whether it was because I preferred to think of myself as being pretty well organized, and denial was the easiest path, or whether it just took me a while to figure out that nothing that I was doing was helping enough, or that it is so easy to think that we are the only one’s struggling, or conversely, that the struggle is precisely the point, especially in the beginning.
What I Wish Someone had Told Me…
First, duh, of course it is hard. It’s not like I grew up sitting cross legged on the floor. Back in the distant beginnings of meditation, this was a much more mundane thing. It was a way to not be complicated: just sit down. But these days the pose is just that, a pose, and a bit esoteric. The mistake we can make now is to focus on the thing rather than the spirit of it. Instead, go for the spirit of ease and simplicity first and foremost.
Second, just as I spent a lifetime learning my current habits, I should give myself the time it takes to learn new ones. Putting in time doesn’t mean pushing through. This is a common mistake (and not just in meditation!) We imagine that racking up the mileage on the zafu will eventually whip the body into shape. Instead we easily wind up reinforcing bad habits and coping strategies, and setting up chronic injuries to come, even as this starts to feel more “normal.” The phrase that always pops into my head when I see this is “the walking wounded.” The walking wounded are getting by, even gaining rewards from the process, but at the cost of a kind of vibrancy. The injuries and perseverance can even become a source of pride, kind of like battle scars. (It takes one to know one!) If you find yourself doing this, instead try putting in the time to pay attention and work with your posture. Taking a posture is not preparation for getting on with meditation, it is itself a form of meditation. And just as it would be weird to think of meditation as something to just get past—rather than being an ongoing, lifelong process—we should recognize that attending to our sitting is an integral part of our practice. Sitting well is something that rewards revisiting daily.
Third, although it may seem like there is very little that can be done to address the challenges, and even though effortless ease can seem like a land on the other side of an impenetrable wall, what I didn’t realize is that I was missing a whole range of options, from the simple to the sophisticated, that could allow me more productive ways in. I did what I could at the time, of course, but there were better options. Many of them are quite simple and can quickly lead to more comfortable sitting. For example, although I had gotten myself a zafu it did not occur to me that it might not be the right height for me. It sounds obvious once you say it, and still this is so rarely optimal. Changing the height of sitting, and finding ways to get proper support under you that match your own needs makes a HUGE difference. Likewise, just shifting the ways in which we think about what sitting is not only can result in immediate changes, but sets us up for a more productive long term exploration. Starting with poor models, poor images of how our bodies work, it is hard to get to effortless sitting, if only because they do not match what we are actually experiencing. For example, we tend to think of sitting as sitting still, and being upright as being straight and still. But balance is an ongoing dynamic process. When we find the movement within stillness, and learn how to work with it instead of against it, then we are cooking.
Fourth, think whole and parts. It is important to keep checking into a sensation of the whole. Can you feel what it is like for you now? What are you doing with the interrelated whole of yourself? But conversely, it is important not to try to take on sitting all at once, simply attempting to impose some preconceived notion of what the whole of it should be. On the other hand, it is easy to get sucked into thinking of posture as a collection of parts—pull this in here, stack that here, do this with your eyes, until you feel tied in knots—or to become fixated on one part, like the shooting pain in a shoulder blade. (It is easy to think this is where the problem is, rather than seeing the discomfort as the local effect of larger patterns.) But if you pay attention to lots of small relationships, allowing them to clarify and move together more efficiently, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Eventually you can begin to see how, for example, the pulling that one might do in one hip (say, to keep from falling over backward!) affects your breathing, or also causes you to pull somehow in the opposite shoulder. And as you improve one, you improve the rest. Subtle relationships of easy coordination begin to permeate the whole.
It helps, of course, to have a bit of guidance, as you give yourself time to sort these things out. In later posts I’ll be going into more detail. As reluctant as I was as a beginning meditator all of those years ago, I’ve come to realize how important it is, for both beginners and seasoned meditators, to improve and refine a balanced sitting posture. Partly this is because I believe that the transition to sitting well makes an incredible difference, both in immediate experience and over the course of a life time of practice. And partly it is because the process of learning to do this can go a lot smoother, with less stumbling in the dark and struggle. In other words, this is an area where a little informed attention can make a huge difference. There is a kind of ah-ha moment that comes, where it is just obvious that doing it is better than not doing it—sort of like that sensation, after meditating, where words prove elusive, but the breath is expansive and easy.